Icons of Aviation History: The Sacred Cow

Nowadays, air travel around the globe by a US President is routine, and “Air Force One” is as familiar a part of the office as is the White House. But the history of Presidential aircraft goes back only to the 1940’s.

The Sacred Cow

In 1943, the Second World War had finally reached a turning point.  The Allies decided that they needed to meet, to plan out the rest of the war and to draw up a set of firm goals. The place they chose to hold their conference was Casablanca, a port city in Morocco. At the Casablanca Conference, the Allies would agree to an invasion of Europe at the earliest opportunity, to open up a second front and relieve the pressure on Stalin’s Red Army. They also agreed that none of them would seek a separate peace with the Axis, and they would accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” to end the war.

For US President Franklin D Roosevelt, however, the biggest difficulty about the Casablanca Conference was how to get there. A victim of polio that had left him unable to walk, Roosevelt made every effort to hide his disability in public. Previous meetings with Churchill had taken place at sea, aboard an American cruiser, but traveling to Morocco by Navy ship would take far too long. FDR, therefore, decided to do something no sitting US President had ever done before–he would travel by air. At that time, air travel was viewed as exotic and a little bit dangerous, but Roosevelt thought it would project the image of the United States (and himself) as being willing to take risks and endure hardships in order to overcome any challenges.

On January 11, 1943, Roosevelt arrived by car at the Dinner Key Seaplane Base in Miami FL and boarded the “Dixie Clipper”. The Boeing 314 “Flying Boat” was owned by the US Navy, but was operated by the Pan Am airline as part of its “Pan American Clipper” service. The flight took FDR from Miami to Brazil and then across the Atlantic to Gambia, where he boarded a C-54 transport operated by TWA and went on to Casablanca. On the way back after the conference, Roosevelt celebrated his 61st birthday.

After FDR’s return to the United States, the Army Air Force began talks with the Secret Service. It was apparent that air travel would soon become a necessary part of a President’s duties, and plans needed to be made for it. The Secret Service was interested in insuring the safety of the President during air travel: the Army was interested in having the President use an Army Air Force aircraft rather than a Navy seaplane. Together, the two agencies made plans to convert an Army C-87A transport plane, named “Guess Where II”, for the President’s use. But the Secret Service became concerned about the C-87’s rather spotty safety record (the C-87 was the unarmed transport version of the B-24 Liberator bomber), and there were some difficulties adapting the airplane for use with FDR’s wheelchair. So in late 1943 it was decided to purpose-build a transport plane for the President from scratch, and the Douglas Company was given the job. It was codenamed “Project 51”.

The basic plan for the “Flying White House”, as it was officially named, was to take the fuselage from a standard C-54A Skymaster transport plane and add the wings from the C-54B model, which were bigger and had larger fuel tanks for greater range. The one-of-a-kind model was designated the VC-54C. The cargo bay was converted into a series of rooms, connected by an extra-wide hallway that would accomodate FDR’s wheelchair. There was a large conference room for meetings, with a bulletproof glass window to the outside. At the back of the fuselage was Roosevelt’s private stateroom, with a leather chair, a fold-out bed, and a private bathroom. The galley was equipped with a stove and an electric refrigerator. And a battery-powered elevator lift was added at a doorway, allowing the President to easily board the plane.

There were, of course, technological limitations. The plane was unpressurized, which kept it at low altitudes. Since there was no air conditioning, each room was provided with electric fans. And although there was a phone connecting the conference room and FDR’s cabin to the cockpit, the only communication between the aircraft and the ground was through the cockpit radio.

The “Flying White House” was delivered to Washington DC from the Douglas factory in California on June 12, 1944. Because of the heavy security that surrounded it, newspaper reporters began to refer to the new plane as the “Sacred Cow”, and, despite repeated complaints from the White House staff that it was “undignified”, the moniker stuck.

By February 1945, it was apparent that Nazi Germany would soon be defeated and the European War would be over. So it was decided that another conference was needed to plan out the Allied occupation of Germany, and to focus the war effort on Japan. This conference was to be held in Yalta, a resort town in the Crimea. At Yalta, Stalin agreed that he would enter the war against Japan six months after Germany surrendered. The Sacred Cow carried FDR to the Soviet city and back. It would be the only time he ever flew aboard the plane. Two months after Yalta, Roosevelt suddenly died from a stroke. The Presidency fell to VP Harry Truman.

President Truman used the Sacred Cow extensively. When he signed the National Security Act of 1947, which established the CIA and NSA as well as separating the US Air Force from the Army, Truman was traveling aboard the Sacred Cow. Later, Truman recieved his own specially-built Presidential airplane, the “Independence”. The Sacred Cow continued to be used as a VIP transport by the White House until she was retired in 1961.

In 1983 the Sacred Cow was donated to the Air Force Museum in Dayton OH, and after ten years of restoration work was put on display along with other Presidential aircraft. In 2015, a new building was completed on the Museum grounds to display all the Presidential planes.


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